Earth viewed from the International Space Station, photographed by astronaut Jeff Williams
© Jeff Williams/NAS
In orbit for Yuri's Night
Sixty years ago today at around 9 AM Moscow time, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to get a view of Earth from space (like this one captured from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeff Williams). With the famous utterance 'Poyekhali!' ('Off we go!'), Gagarin launched into low Earth orbit in his Vostok 3KA spacecraft, making history in less than two hours with a complete trip around the planet. Landing in rural Russia, he became an instant worldwide celebrity—that is, after convincing puzzled locals he was a comrade and not a space alien.
Of course, with Russian elation came American deflation: Gagarin's flight dashed NASA's hopes of making an American the first person in space. But the Soviets' success kicked the space race into high gear, setting the stage for a spate of US spaceflights and eventually that first trip to the moon. Now that competition in spaceflight is less bitter, 'Yuri's Night' is observed today by astronomy lovers of all nationalities, celebrating how space exploration can unite the world. It's even a double holiday: The first US space shuttle mission coincidentally launched on Yuri's Night in 1981.